‘Dunkirk’: Christopher Nolan’s wartime epic in three acts

The resolution shown by English civilians piloting their small craft across the English Channel inspired the Allies to confront Germany’s military machine anew.

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Beach panorama scene from the film "Dunkirk." (Screen capture from the film's trailer, via YouTube)

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2017 – Dunkirk has an interesting place in history. Although it marked a significant allied military failure in the Second World War, it was also one of the most inspiring military operations ever conducted. Such subtleties tend not to get emphasized when it comes to war or war films, both of which prefer to discuss the narrative by breaking it down into the binary of victory or defeat.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk focuses on the early days of World War II and the first major defeat Germany dealt to the Allied forces of the United Kingdom and France. After that defeat left a substantial number of Allied soldiers stranded and exposed to the predations of German soldiers, a military rescue operation – Operation Dynamo – was launched to evacuate as many British troops as possible using the French beach of Dunkirk as a staging ground.

A controversial hold order made by Germany on its forces allowed the briefest of windows for the Allies to evacuate their troops back to England. Yet the very presence of hostile German forces made it difficult for the Royal Navy to use its ships in the evacuation. So the call was made to England’s citizens to cross the channel in whatever seafaring boats they could muster to bring back the troops in a remarkable, almost ad hoc operation.

After roughly a week of this unprecedented and largely civilian effort, over 300,000 troops had been evacuated. The evacuation at Dunkirk was clearly not viewed as a military triumph. But the resolution shown by everyday English citizens piloting their small craft to-and-fro across the English Channel and back inspired the British and Allied forces anew to aggressively push their offense against German military machine.


In Nolan’s last two non-Batman films, “Inception” and “Interstellar,” time plays a pivotal, though indirect role. “Dunkirk” takes a much more direct path with time by playing around with it to break up the narrative.

In the current film, Nolan breaks his epic narrative of “Dunkirk” into three parts, or three acts, if you will. The film’s first “act,” dubbed “The Mole” for its literal and symbolic references to the piers where rescue boats were to dock, takes place on the beach over an approximately 8-day time period.

The remains of the East Mole of Dunkirk harbor, pictured in 2009. (Image via Wikipedia entry on “Dunkirk,” the film. CC 2.0 license)

“The Sea,” aka Act II, takes places over the course of a single day as the valiant private boats make their way across the channel to rescue the troops.

Authentic Spitfire, repainted for use in the film, “Dunkirk.” (Image via Wikipedia entry on the film, CC 2.0 license)

“The Air,” the film’s finale, takes place in a single hour and largely in the sky as a fighter group of three Spitfires race to give air support to the evacuation. All three narratives unfold contiguously but discreetly within the film, only intersecting towards the end, even as they cover similar plot points.

The main narrative arc of “Dunkirk” takes us to the beginning of the eight-day period during which the Allied troops retreated to the beach and waited for ships to ferry them out of France and back home. A group of young soldiers is idly strolling through the town of Dunkirk, seemingly at ease. But, as paper fliers begin raining from the sky, the soldiers are systematically picked-off, one by one, by the Germans, until young Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is left desperately rushing to make it across a barricade.

As Tommy makes his way to the beach, the scale of the event becomes clear to both he and the audience. Both are startled to see some 400,000 troops stranded on the beach.

We follow Tommy as he tries to find his footing in an unfamiliar setting while keeping his wits about him. He soon comes across “Gibson” (Aneurin Benard), whom he encounters as the latter is burying a fellow soldier in the sand. Gibson never speaks – and in fairness, Tommy rarely does – giving an inconsistent and shady feel to this pair of characters as they search for new ways to escape dread and death on the beach itself, which becomes a visual metaphor of the gathering terror that stalks the soldiers awaiting the small English armada of freelance rescuers.

The attacks by the German forces arrive at infrequent intervals. But they’re just devastating enough that the fear each attack provokes creates increasing tension for each of the soldiers, putting soldiers who have already survived past battles on edge. That edginess and fear notches up each time remaining soldiers fail to get off the beach.

An additional element contributing to this escalating fear is Nolan’s decision to never give a face to the Germans, whose presence is only revealed in the guise of the Luftwaffe bombers there to prevent the evacuation’s success.

Each part of Nolan’s tripartite narrative contributes to the main story arc. The narrative on the beach is akin to a horror film as the soldiers on the beach fight to survive the German “monster” as it attacks again and again at random, similar, to the way Jason or Michael Myers picks off victims one by one when they least expect it. This eerie similarity to mad slasher films gains clarity when the first bombing raid occurs, as Tommy covers his head, while a soldier in front him shoots in vain at a swooping bomber before disappearing in an inevitable blast. There is very little the soldiers on the beach can do except hope for salvation in whatever form it might take.

If the scenes on the beach are a like a week of condensed horror film feelings and footage, then the second act’s high seas narrative becomes more of a straight-ahead adventure story against the backdrop of war. Focusing on the commandeering of private boats to cross the channel to assist in the mass evacuation, this portion of the film elevates the very real heroism of the rescue effort’s noncombatants.

Here the story centers on mariner Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they set off to aid in the evacuation. “The Sea” puts them squarely in the sites of war, whether they’re evading German aircraft, picking up the survivor of a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy), or rescuing an airman named Collins (Jack Lowden) after he ditches his damaged Spitfire.

This seaborne arc is also a coming of age story for Peter, as he faces a Soldier with severe PTSD and the death of George as a consequence of that encounter. Dawson, Peter, and George each have a direct purpose in the operation, and the film focuses this part of the story on the effect the war has on each of them.

The final act of the film that serves as the connective tissue for “Dunkirk” as Collins, Farrier (Tom Hardy), and their squadron leader take their Spitfires into the air to provide air cover for the evacuation process. This most “traditional” element in Nolan’s unusual war film, finds our three pilots facing off against Germans time and time again.

Sadly, but predictably, their numbers begin to dwindle, leaving only Farrier keeping the Luftwaffe off the evacuating ships on the beach of Dunkirk. The image of his descending plane – out of luck and out of fuel – flying over the final group of soldiers as they leave the beach, offers a final bit of hope the remaining soldiers needed to make their journey home.

In context, what this film attempts to accomplish is to provide an understanding of the hope and hopelessness that exist seamlessly and simultaneously within the ongoing danger, fear and emotional stress of war. The soldiers involved “hope” they can stop something they see as wrong while surviving until the bitter end. But the equal sense that they’re almost helpless cogs never quite goes away.

“Dunkirk,” like most films, has a musical score running underneath much of the action. But arguably, Hans Zimmer’s score becomes in many ways the most memorable aspect of this war epic. It marks the continuation of a fruitful partnership between the composer and Christopher Nolan that began with the director’s Batman films and has extended through five more.

Zimmer’s brilliantly crafted score to this film adds to the sense of dread and tension of the film, and is, at times, quite unsettling. The key to Zimmer’s success here is that his “Dunkirk” score never quite reaches a high point. Instead, it gives the illusion that it is continuing to build to a climax that never comes.

The score ends up perfectly connecting all of the themes in this film, the ones that Nolan wants to bring to the surface. No point in “Dunkirk” feels like the film’s climax, that singular point where all of the momentum and action finally pays off.

But that moment never comes. There isn’t a single moment that signifies everything is over, and the soldiers who make it across the channel never really feel like the evacuation is over until they’re physically at the train station in England. Even then, their expectations are subdued. True, they’re treated as heroes for making it home. But it hardly feels that way to them as they grapple with an understand of how little of a role they actually played.

But that’s the ultimate goal of Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” An individual’s effect on war is great. But given this war’s particularly massive scale, an individual effort still feels so small it’s almost pointless. Yet “Dunkirk” still underscores the impact an individual can have in an epic moment of history, even when that individual’s purpose is just to survive despite the mounting obstacles and dread that defines the path of life ahead.

The remains of the East Mole of Dunkirk harbor, pictured in 2009. CC 2.0.

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